Thursday, April 29, 2010

Electoral Thought Experiment

I was looking at Cesar Bello's mayoral platform and I just read the Citizen article on Mike Maguire's blue-belt proposals.

While I'm flattered by the suggestion that I'd be good in office, I politely decline the suggestion.

And with real candidacy off the table, it sort of got me thinking about hypothetical ones.

Seeing as many of these candidates register to run for Mayor and likely don't have a hope in hell of winning, what if it were the other way around? What if someone were to campaign and get their face in everyone else's, but not actually register as a candidate?

How would it play out? Would the media cover it? Would they be able to avoid it? What are the precedents? Perhaps a cross between Stephen Colbert (before the writers' strike) and Marg Delahunty? Are there laws against it? Would they still be able to collect donations (assuming they're upfront about their non-registered status)? Could they break restrictions on running ads? The questions go on.

It would make a good film, maybe even a mocumentary. Or Documentary. (Wait a minute...) Well, if it were about a municipal election in Ottawa, I guess the best it would do is a good short story or maybe a blog series. Fiction, of course, but then fiction and reality would be pretty blurred anyway in this situation.

Seeing as it's two in the morning and I still have a couple of reports to write, I think I'll leave this thought where it is and let your own imagination explore where it could go.

- RG>

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bell and Blackberry are also a bunch of fucks

For the last two weeks, I've had a loaner Blackberry from Bell, because my phone (a Blackberry Pearl 8130) was sent in for extended warranty repairs. You see, when I had tried to update my firmware to the latest version, it caused a bunch of problems.

Because it's been more than a year since I had my phone, the extended warranty required me to take my phone into the store, rather than them send me a new phone and I return the old one (which is what happened when my phone broke inside the standard warranty period). So this inevitably long trip takes time out of my work day.

Finally, two weeks after giving in my phone, and having to put up with the various problems from transferring data to the loaner, I get a call that my phone is back.

Good, I thought. They found out what's wrong with it.

Nevermind that the exact same problems I had with my phone, I also encountered with the loaner phone. This despite the phone rep I had spoken to (the one who told me I'd have to take it into the store) assuring me that it must be a problem with the handset, otherwise he'd be getting calls like mine all the time. I have long been convinced that the problems I've had were with the Blackberry firmware, but there's no way to file bug reports, so the best you can do is update to the latest firmware when it comes out and hope they fixed your problems (which it never does)0.

Anyway, I went in today to pick up my phone.

They handed it back to me with a note saying that Blackberry didn't look at it because there's damage to the casing (from frequently being taken out of and replaced into the holster), and they'd charge me $92 or so before even looking inside it.

Excuse me? Warranty mean anything to you? My problems are with the inside, not the outside.

They asked if I wanted to pay the $92 and I asked them how much it would cost for a new phone (starting at $129), and how much it would cost to break my contract ($260!).

I was about to leave, when I realized that they didn't pay me back my deposit for the loaner. Also $280--more than they sell a new one for with no contract!

After about fifteen minutes of looking around, they concluded they lost the record of my deposit and I'd have to come back into the store (again!) with my receipt so they can refund me.

So these are my options:
- I pay $92 to have them send my phone away for another two weeks or more with the possibility that they fix the problems that I was also encountering with the loaner phone

- I keep my phone on the old firmware, voiding the extended warranty (which requires the customer to keep the phone's firmware up to date)

- I stay with Bell and switch to a different, cheaper phone (at least $130 plus tax and transferring fees)

- I pay $260 to drop my contract and move to a different provider (a "door #3 provider"), probably also invoking a bunch of other hidden fees, not to mention the price of the phone I'd probably have to buy with the new provider.

And this doesn't even include the saga of all the bullshit I had to take from Bell when I got this Blackberry in the first place!

I wish they still sold real cell phones, the kind that don't have cameras, try to play mp3s do your laundry.

Because the people who sell the things we have now are all a bunch of fucks.

- RG>

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bedard by-law meeting tonight

This notice was apparently sent out by Councillor Georges B├ędard's office. There's a public meeting at City Hall tonight about the "nuisance" by-law, which, among other things, would make swearing on public punishable by a $300 fine.

NOTICE OF PUBLIC MEETING
MAINTAINING SAFETY
AND HARMONY
ON CITY STREETS
Consideration is being given to the possibility of amending
the Use and Care of Roads By-law to include provisions
that would prohibit disorderly conduct on City streets or
prohibit activity that would interfere with the general public
using City streets or with adjacent property owners.
We would welcome public comment on the subject and invite
you to attend a meeting to share your views, as follows:
Thursday, April 22, 2010
7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
City Hall, 110 Laurier Avenue West
Andrew Haydon Hall (Council Chambers)
Comments may also be submitted in writing by May 31,
2010, by fax at 613-580-2719 or by e-mail to Christine.
Hartig@ottawa.ca. For more information, please contact
Ms. Hartig 613-580-2424, ext. 25629.
I've spent enough mental energy on City Hall this week, and am going to skip this meeting, fun as I'm sure it will be.

- RG>

Thank you for this.

Yesterday at Transportation Committee, City Staff presented councillors with an offer from New Flyer for some discount buses. The councillors who were let in on the deal before the meeting were told not to talk about it.

The report itself wasn't available in advance of the meeting, and isn't on the agenda for the meeting (unless it's the blandly titled item 4, "FLEET ACQUISITION STRATEGY", which doesn't link to any report). Additionally, the Committee had to waive the rules of procedure in order not only to hear the report without advance notice (to councillors or to the public), but also to discuss and decide on it.

The Committee approved the recommendation, thus sending it to Council to consider (not sure exactly when, but I suspect May 12). If any member of the public wanted to scrutinize the details, they had between the time the report was presented and presumably a few minutes after that to review the information and make a presentation.

The details of the offer are now available--after the Committee made its decision--but none of the articles I've seen so far have been able to explain the secrecy.

I e-mailed Transit Committee Alex Cullen asking for the report, and asking about this secrecy, since he chairs the committee and new about the deal before the meeting, and also because he's very big on transparency and fairness in government.

His reply:

Thank you for this. First, I am not Chair of Transportation Committee, but Chair of Transit Committee*. Second, you should be able to find this report on the City's web site under Council & Committee Agendas & Minutes. Third, this is not a sole-source contract but is well within the existing contract that the City has with New Flyer Industries. What has happened is that New Flyer had a large order from Chicago cancelled (they are going through some tough economic times there) and came to us with an offer to accelerate our bus replacement program at a far cheaper price, with the additional benefits of better warranties (5 years instead of the industry 2-year norm) plus lower maintenance costs and higher fuel efficiencies. It is a very good deal and very affordable.

It is unfortunate that, due to timing issues (the final proposal from New Flyer came last Friday, and staff have been working hard to analyze it and provide due diligence) this report could not be made public beforehand, but it is too good a deal to ignore. Transit Committee did spend quite a bit of time on this matter and did endorse this proposal for Council's consideration.


[*RG: this was my bad, two of four references in my original e-mail were to Transportation Committee, which I'm more used to dealing with]
Hopefully you didn't read it all looking for the reason why it had to be kept under wraps until the meeting and why it had to be considered so urgently, because there's nothing of the sort in his reply. Just stuff about how it's such a good deal, which placates some and not others.

The report wasn't on the Committee Agendas & Minutes page, though Ken Gray posted something official resembling the report on his blog in the intervening time of the messages. Since the meeting wasn't broadcast or webcast, the public will have to wait for the minutes to be posted to hear how the committee members scrutinized the deal they were just told about.

When I replied to Councillor Cullen reiterating my question about the need for urgency, he replied:

Thank you for this. New Flyer had a time-limited window to make this offer, as they had to cover the cancelled order or lay people off - another reason for the good price.
I'm sure Alex is a busy guy with lots of stuff to do--running for mayor, being one, so he probably didn't have time to answer this question, and the question of why everyone was sworn to secrecy beforehand (reminiscent of the horrible N-S LRT project killed in 2006 whose secret contract ended up costing us $37 million for nothing), but I'm surprised that most of the mainstream coverage completely skips over this issue now that it's passed. Makes it really frustrating for those of us who weren't in the room to figure out why our elected representatives did this.

It's tough because I'm usually on the same side as Alex (I've even held back a few punches in this post), but on this one there are simply too many loose ends that are being swept under the rug.

- RG>

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ottawa City Hall: Let Me Be Open

Back on March 1, there was a report presented to the City of Ottawa's little-known Information Technology Sub-Committee of the Corporate Services and Economic Development Committee about Open Data. It made its way up to Council before being referred back to ITS, who will be discussing it tomorrow (Monday) afternoon.

It's important that Council pass this policy, but what does it mean?

Nowadays, when you visit a website, what's really happening is a machine (specifically a webserver) is looking up entries in a database, then plugging the results into a template that makes it nice for you to look at.

Case in point, this blog is stored in a database on Google's servers, and it could be presented in a variety of ways. That's how how I could change the look and feel of my blog without having to republish every single entry. It's also you can pull the RSS feed of my blog in order to read it in a format that is more suited to your viewing habits (especially convenient because I don't publish on a regular basis).

Blogs are one form of data, but our governments also produce a vast amount of data. As a simple example, bus schedules. Ten years ago, if you wanted to know when the next bus was supposed to come, you could either check out the schedule posted at the bus stop or you could find a printed schedule, which would tell you when the bus was to come to the nearest timepoint.

Nowadays, OC Transpo's website can look up the schedule for the exact place you want to get on the bus and tell you when it is supposed to arrive.

But the databases that store this information are locked up with OC Transpo. If you wanted to create a more convenient interface, like Craig Davey did, you'd have to file a freedom of information requestto access that data.

Not so with an Open Data policy. While machine-readable datasets may not be the sexiest topic, the ability to mash them up and interpret them in the context of other datasets is invaluable is a tremendous power.

This five-and-a-half minute talk by Tim Berners-Lee (the man who created the World Wide Web) gives some examples of how open data can be useful. In one case, a map of water main access overlaid on a map of the race of residents showed clearly that only white people had clean water in an Ohio neighbourhood.


Closer to home, there is a website called OpenParliament.ca, which parses the Hansard transcript and allows you to browse by MP, by topic, and in other ways. David Eaves, who created the website, also created www.datadotgc.ca, which publishes a list of known Government of Canada datasets.

Berners-Lee is part of an Open Data movement that is pushing governments and institutions at all levels to release their data, not only for the media to be able to correlate the previously uncorrelatable, but also so that enterprising individuals can make that data useful for the public, as with the OCTranspo.net site.

As a second example of what you can do with these types of datasets, here is Gary Flake with a TED presentation about Microsoft Pivot, which allows useful browsing not only of demographic data, but even more tangible information like Time Magazine covers:


One of the areas of contention at Ottawa City Hall was that it would cost the City a certain amount of money (a couple hundred thousand dollars at the most) to release this data, so why not charge companies like Google and Microsoft when they want to use it?

This, unfortunately, shuts out people like Davey and Eaves--regular citizens with a bit of programming skill who want to make existing information more useful and more accessible to people.

I have little doubt that the programs created by individuals using open data from the City of Ottawa would bring a substantial return on the meagre investment required for the City to publish that information in the first place. Far more useful than if the City put that money into creating those resources itself.

And if there's any better example for the need for this type of service, the agenda for tomorrow's meeting would have been posted to the City's website a week earlier. But I only heard about it on Friday afternoon in the City's "meetings next week" e-mail. If Council and Committee agendas and minutes were released as part of an Open Data policy, I would have written this post a week before the meeting, instead of the night before.

- RG>

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Binder Clip Fan Club

Something happened in the blogosphere yesterday. Maybe a belated April Fool's Day Joke, or maybe a conspiracy that I'm not in on (yet).

Whatever it was, the changes were, shall we say, binding.

I know a trend coming along when I see one, and I knew I'd have to run at a pretty fast clip to catch up with it. So hastily, I registered www.BinderClips.ca and created a Blogger blog to act as a landing site for now. This evening I created some basic content:

For me, the first sign of the apocaclips was a link on the blog of binder clip fan (and self-declared Binder Clip King) David Scrimshaw, David Scrimshaw's blog, repeating a post by binder clip enthusiast Megan Butcher on her eponymous blog.

Megan had discovered a user for binder clips: a ceiling cleaning mop mod.

Megan's post linked to a post on Mae Callen's blog, Driving fast on loose gravel, wherein she had devised a mounting system for silk scarves.

This led Woodsy to post on her blog her own binder clip story (which she knows by their French nickname, "des clips," not to be confused with the nickname for Desmond Clipson, the infamously hard-to-Google actor*). In that post, she summarised the previous three links as Ottawa bloggers who enjoy the creative use of bull binder clips.

*You may not remember him. He plays a conveniently-named bit character on blog posts.

I was disappointed not to see any links to my blog on her list. Then I realized that my binder clip affection is still a secret on this blog! The closest I've come is the recent post on creating a handlebar-mounted clipboard.

Meanwhile, others are way ahead of me: both David Scrimshaw and Megan Butcher have made enough relevant posts to have a "binder clips" tag on their blogs.

But you are not alone! I have a longstanding addiction to binder clips!

Here is a photo of a box of binder clips shortly after I picked it up from my supplier last August. The blue thing is a letter size file folder for comparison.

When people visit, I always offer them a handful of clips for the road.

And this was the third such box that I got from my supplier, having already exhausted two. You find a lot of uses for binder clips with that many around.

As for www.BinderClips.ca, I'm hoping it will be a resource for all the many uses people find for binder clips.

To be honest, I kinda just registered the domain and hoped the rest would come together. As far as I could see, there weren't any Binder Clip fansites out there, so this is new territory. I guess I'm vaguely thinking of a cross between theme blogs like el Maks' Swapbox blog, I Can Has Cheezburger and Always Use Zipcode, and collaborative blogs like Apartment 613 and the ELgiN StreEt iRReguLars.

Damned if I know how it's going to work, but if it does, I want to make a similar site for local fans of used inner tubes.

I guess the question is, who's in? Clip fans--speak up!

- RG>

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Field research for Dan Gardner

In his latest blog post, Ottawa Citizen columnist asked, "Are they ignorant, dishonest, or both?" about the bewildering chasm between Conservative Party rhetoric about crime policy and actual crime trends.

This exclusive photo reveals the identity of the Conservatives' prison farms consultant, which in turns answers a lot of Dan's questions:

Makes for a splendid image, but what does it mean?

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure offhand--I recall hearing about it--but I think there's something to be learned about it in a recent panel that included Dan Gardner (described by Zoom! here), the transcript of which can be downloaded from CBC here (mp3). I've downloaded that podcast, but I've yet to listen to it. Considering the Conservatives' terrible record on criminal justice policy, I'd probably agree with it anyway.

- RG>

Thursday, April 01, 2010

April Foo-UCK!!!

In the last couple of weeks, I've had more than my share of problems with electronics.

- My cell phone keeps freezing

- My laptop shut down spontaneously before a meeting, losing all the files I had prepared for the meeting

- My printer died in the middle of a job

And most recently, this morning the virtual XP machine on my mac at work died.

Luckily, there wasn't too much data loss in any of these circumstances. A printer loss, no doubt, but it wasn't really mine anyway and it clears up some space in my apartment.

The most stressful one--aside from the recurrent stress of having to resist the urge to throw my cell phone across the room--was the machine at work.

Luckily, I started a few weeks ago to do weekly backups of my virtual machine image, which itself I only really use for the accounting program, which I also backup weekly. But it being year-end, we had done a lot of year-end transactions this week.

The worst part is, I had finally got it to restart at one point, and got into Windows, but the accounting program wasn't opening up the file for some reason. At that point, I should have saved a copy of the file on the host OS before doing anything further. Instead, I simply shut it down and tried to do a repair installation of Windows XP.

And of course, something broke with the repair installation partway through (it ran out of disk space?!? Not technically possible), which corrupted the file beyond repair.

Luckily, after a good three or four hours of failed troubleshooting, and after restoring the backups from last Friday, we were able to re-create all the transactions that were done in the last week (thank goodness for triplicate!)

But between all this stress (which kept me inside for lunch), plus stress from a few other battles going on in my life, plus being sick last weekend, it's been really hard to not just say "fuck it" and go live on an island.

It's also been terribly depressing, which I hear is going around.

Hopefully I'll recover, and will get back to using this blog to bitch about other people, instead of just myself.

- RG>